Strongest person I know

Student details mom’s battle with cancer

“You can give the countdown,” is what she said before we would begin our race. 

She would say this sentence every time, seemingly to put some sort of responsibility on me. It felt like she had given me a head start in a way when in reality she knew what the outcome would be. 

My right foot was slightly in front of my left, knees bent at an angle, hands firm with my fingers pressed together, ready to slice through the air, and my face squinted preparing for liftoff. 

“Three, two, one, GO!!” I would shout. 

I began the 150-foot dash to the other side of our back yard. My bare feet pressed into the muddy earth; my heart racing faster than I was running. I thought for a brief second that I could do it. That I could beat her. But, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her gaining. My mother’s smile came into view as she passed me with ease. Never breaking a sweat, never panting for air, never losing. 

The strongest and the fastest person in my family.

“Want to go again, Em?” she would chuckle. 

Losing to my mother was a ritual that all of my family, including myself, participated in. We would all line up, oldest to youngest. My dad, then mom, myself, my little brother and my little sister brought up the end. We stood parallel to each other again, preparing for take-off.

Interestingly enough, we all weren’t racing against each other, we were racing against my mom. I won once. My dad lifted me up onto his strong shoulders to spin me around while my sister and brother held hands around us, cheering in excitement. 

During the celebration, my mom chuckled once more, while wiping her muddy hands off onto her jeans after she slipped and landed in the cold, wet, Vermont soil mid-race. 

“Good work Emily, I knew you’d beat me one day.” 

She scoops me up into a warm hug. I let myself feel victorious in her arms. 

Years go on, and now I don’t remember the last time me and my mom raced. 

“Hey Em, can I talk to you for a second, kid?” she asked after I got home from my cafe job one day. Truthfully, while still being covered in espresso grounds and the long-lasting scent of bacon grease, a talk was the last thing I wanted and a shower was the first. 

“So, I went to the doctor to talk about my upcoming procedure and I wanted to let you know they found cancer in my chest.” 

My mind shut off. 

A circuit was cut somewhere in my brain and my thoughts became empty. My palms sweat, my eyes watered, and a lump in my throat appeared. 

“What?” I choked out. 

“I am absolutely fine, I just wanted to let you know. The doctors caught it early and everything will be okay.”

My brain turned back on. 

“Okay,” I said. 

I’m not buying it. My mother is the type of person to slice herself open, break bones, need stitches, and still refuse to go to the hospital. She believes that she’s invincible. 

“Oh, I’m fine Em.” 

Yeah. I’ve heard that one before. I give her a hug and make her promise to tell me any new health-related discoveries as they arise. I leave to go shower. I turn the water on as hot as it will get. Steam pours out over the top of the shower curtain before I decide to get in. I sit on the shower floor in a somewhat pitiful and dramatic way letting silent tears fall from my face. 

I feel confused. I feel angry. I feel worried. 

“Oh my god EMILY!!!” 

My thoughts of sadness and stress were interrupted by a loud pounding on the bathroom door. My brother just got home from work and apparently urgently needed a shower.

“Whatever,” I think. 

I dry myself off and swiftly move past him.

Weeks go by since the day my mom told me the doctors found cancer. 

She has had her cancer removed. During a checkup a few weeks later, another tumor was found. 

I’m starting college before she can get her next surgery. After this news she finds me lying on my floor looking up at the ceiling with my headphones on. 

Surrounded by piles of unfolded clothes I need to pack for college, health and scholarship papers I need to turn in strewn about, and piles of dirty cups I collected to return to the kitchen. 


Silent tears stream from my face. I didn’t realize she was watching me from the doorway.

“Em?” she questions. 

I sniffle, trying to hide my tear-stained face. She offers me a hug. I get buried in her hair and her motherly warmth. I let myself feel like a child in her arms. My mother is the strongest person in the family. The strongest person I will ever know. 

She is invincible.

– Emily Ely

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